We got up early today to visit the Royal Palace and Wat with the Emerald Buddha. We got up early primarily because we didn't want to be traipsing about Bangkok in the midday sun when it was supposed to be 40 degrees [103 Fahrenheit].
The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo are the spiritual and royal heart of Thailand, being both the holiest Buddha shrine in the land as well as the site of many royal ceremonies and functions. It is also the Disneyland of temples. Decked in more ornate materials than any place you have ever seen, this jumble of different building in different style is one of the most awesome sights you will ever see.
During the reign of earlier kings, this was home to all of the royal families, court and concubines; however, when King Rama IV began his reign and adopted the policy of monogamy, the concubines fell by the wayside. The area that housed the concubines is called the Inner Palace, now a finishing school for well to do women in Thailand, and is not open to visitors. Sad.
The palace complex and the Wat were built in 1782 which makes most of it rather new in historical terms. Built in the styles of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, the two previous capitals of Siam, the whole complex takes up 2 square kilometres and is covered with and made up of mostly gold, porcelain tiles and coloured glass. It is quite the site and pictures do not do it justice. It is no longer the residence of the royal family but is used often for royal ceremonies. The actual royal palace was designed by an English architect in the early 1800's and is in tradition neo classic style. The Thai style roof was added at the last minute, at the instance of the Royal family, instead of the dome that was originally intended.
Housed in the Wat is an enshrined piece of Buddha's breast bone in a Sri Lanka type gold chedi, a vast mural about 1 kilometre long depicting the story of the Ramayana [which is constantly undergoing renovation] and many chedi housing the remains of the Thai Chakri Dynasty. The Wat also houses a large model of Angkor Wat, as during the reign of Rama IV, present day Cambodia was a vassal state of Siam. The most important artifact in the Wat, in fact probably the most important artifact in all of Thailand, is the Emerald Buddha [really, it is made of Jadeite]. Although it only stand about 60 centimetres tall, it is lifted high in it's own temple by a 9 metre gold column and surrounded by terraces upon terraces of gold. The statue has three costumes, a gilt monastic robe with blue enamel for the rainy season, crown and ornaments for the hot season and a full length gold shawl for the cool season. These outfits are only changed by the king [although due to his age, they are currently being changed by the crown prince] and his outfit was recently changed, with much pomp and ceremony, to the one for the hot season.
The touring of the Royal Ground and the dodging of the massive tour groups took about 3 hours. After wards, we wandered over to the amulet market where the sell special images carved of various materials. These are meant to be worn around the neck and are blessed by monks with special protective or enhancing powers. The whole trading scene for these is quite intense with many of them coming under the scrutiny of sellers and buyer like diamonds in Antwerp, magnifying monocle and all. We then took a boat down the river and had lunch at the Shangri-La, which is a very big nice hotel a few blocks down from the Oriental. Even though we were dressed according to Oriental hotel policy [long pants which incidentally, is the dress code for the royal temple] I decided that I had no desire to step foot in a property that was so snotty about what you where. Lunch at the Shangri-La was pretty good Italian food. I actually got to have real cheese!
Back at The Sukhothai, we were just in time to catch an hour and a half of sunshine next to the pool. Afterwards, we went down the street for a couple of beers and massages and then headed over to the night market near the hotel to buy some more stuff we don't need. After a few hours of shopping, it was definitely time to come home and go to bed. It was probably the most active day we have had in weeks.